Tag Archives: anime

Magic Hour

Swaying grass, rippling water, towering trees, cobblestone streets, and of course magic: from these elements Hayao Miyazaki and his animators crafted the world of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). They provide such a rich backdrop for the tale of teenage witch Kiki, a girl for whom witchcraft is both vocation and an emblem of outsider status. Just as in other Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Ponyo, magic functions here as metaphor, as the storytelling device that sets a young woman’s bildungsroman into motion. These movies may be enchanted fantasies on the surface, but at heart they’re all about a small set of real-world issues: family, responsibility, maturation. They’re driven not by supernatural contrivance, but by the simple fact that life is difficult.

Kiki can fly on a broomstick, an action the film exploits for maximum spectacle. And she can talk with her black cat Jiji, who (in the fine tradition of witches’ familiars) acts as her foil and confidante. But beyond these powers, she’s like any other 13-year-old girl thrust out to live on her own. She’s still a little childish, a little naïve, but also resourceful, hard-working, empathetic. When two old women need help baking a pie for her to deliver, she throws herself into the labor of stoking a fire—not because she has to, mind you, but because she enjoys putting her skills in the service of these newfound friends. She’s still anxious, still self-conscious and vulnerable, but over the course of the film she grows. She overcomes her fears and develops a series of new, supportive relationships.

It all makes for a ideal example of how to write a complex female protagonist. The film explains how to animate her, too: with four quiet colors and a round, expressive face. For a supposed “kids’ movie,” everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is executed with a startling amount of subtlety and restraint. I especially love the rhythm of the film’s editing. The pace is relaxed, just enough room to breathe, drawing the audience in with its graceful classicism. The same philosophy informs the sound design, which grows simpler as narrative tension mounts, even descending into total silence at the height of the film’s airborne climax. Miyazaki crams power into every detail and every elision.

One detail in particular walloped me with overwhelming emotional force. Late in the film, Kiki experiences some mild depression, losing her self-confidence and her magical abilities with it. She can’t fly and Jiji no longer speaks. It takes some soul-searching and a life-threatening crisis, but pretty soon she’s back on a broom and up in the air. Yet even after every loose end is tied up, Jiji doesn’t say another word. He’s a normal cat now, with a girlfriend and a litter of kittens. I know that this counts as a happy ending, I know that he’s still around and that Kiki has human friends now, but it still engenders a deep sense of loss in me. But then, that’s growing up. That’s magic used as a poignant metaphor. That’s the kind of unremarked-upon detail that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service truly special.

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Link Dump: #53

Hey, it’s Kirara, Sango’s demon-cat companion from InuYasha! Pretty old-school, right? Brings back memories of watching Adult Swim at 2 AM. (For me, anyway.) She’s here, in her cute diminutive form, to welcome us into December. And to entreat you to check out this compendium of fun, fascinating links:

And we’ve got search terms! Like “creepy distorted face music video.” Which, c’mon, doesn’t that refer to like 95% of all pseudo-avant-garde music videos? We had “define:pussy”—FYI, Google says it’s “2. vulgar. A woman’s genitals.” And finally, “satanic whore gets fucked on pentagram.” I’m sure there’s porn out there for that. Or, again, music videos. Lots and lots of awful music videos.

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Gross horror and pleasant anime: two great tastes that taste…odd together.

[This post is written by both of us in support of the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, hosted by Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Check them out and please donate if you can.]


Andreas:

This may be a colossal understatement, but here goes: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a really fucking weird movie. It’s short, cheap, and to the point, communicating through gory, rapid-fire sequences that blaze past in the blink of an eye. This makes the film as a whole pretty difficult to follow, since it often comes across as a particularly hazy, frenetic nightmare. Add in the fact that none of the characters have names, and that the dialogue is minimal, and you can see why I’m not even sure if I saw a film. Maybe I just imagined it. Could a string of images and sounds as intensely, off-puttingly gruesome as Tetsuo really exist?

Well… yes. I guess. The impression I got of the film’s plot was, roughly, this: a panting madman (played by the director) impales his leg with a metal rod. It gets infected. He runs in front of a car and gets run over. Later, the driver of the car notices a gross chunk of metal sticking out of his cheek. He tries to remove it, and (naturally) it sprays pus all over the place. After that, I’m lost. The man tries to go to work, and gets chased by a fellow commuter who’s turning into a cyborg—or maybe not? He goes home, where he has fatal drill-penis sex with his horny, wild-eyed girlfriend after some surreal foreplay—or, again, maybe not?

The rest of the movie involves yet more sped-up chase scenes, violently phallic imagery, and stop-motion transformations. Just imagine the movie Videodrome on amphetamines, with an even more inscrutable storyline. That’s Tetsuo in a nutshell. Overwhelming and gratuitous as the film may be, there’s still a dizzying, demented genius in how earnestly and resourcefully Tsukamoto executes his vision. At heart, it’s a nonstop, nonverbal battle between metal and flesh, with each one ferociously preying on the other; the audience is left to say “Eww!” or “WTF?” Or both.

Ashley:

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: PONYO!

Let’s take the edge off a bit, shall we? I’ve written about Ponyo before; it’s one of my favorite feel-good movies, right up there with Harvey. It is the ultimate example of what a kid’s movie can be: sweet and pleasant without all the pandering, condescending bullshit. You don’t have to have a “kid’s” movie full of double entendres, coded language, hidden imagery, or obscure parallelism (although I ain’t knocking that kind of animated film; I need more of it in my life) for it to be clever, cute, and appealing to a broad audience. Miyazaki’s effortlessly beautiful hand-drawn underwater worlds and his impish little Ponyo are totally irresistible. Sadly, I’m very short on time so I can’t get too in depth about the film but I will leave you with a number of lovely images.

Thanks to Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema for hosting this great blogathon! Please donate if you can!


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Celebrity, Identity, and Perfect Blue

Before we lost Satoshi Kon, and before he had made a dreamscape spy movie, a yuletide comedy/drama about homeless people, a postmodern masterpiece of TV anime, and a meta-cinematic fantasia about Japanese film history… before all that, he made a tight little psychological thriller called Perfect Blue (1997). The film’s style has been compared to those of Hitchcock, Argento, and de Palma, and while it shares their interests in obsession, subjectivity, and nail-biting suspense, deep down it’s pure Kon. His is a world where self-definition is all-important, and where our identities can be shaped by the images that surround us.

This is the crisis that threatens to destroy Mimarin, a Japanese pop star who tries her hand at serious acting with a small role on a TV crime drama. Her fans aren’t happy with this change in career, and they’re encouraged by a website called “Mima’s Room” that purports to record her every thought and move; together, this fan backlash and invasive website shatter Mima’s confidence and rip away any veil of privacy that she may have had. But while her privacy disappears, she’s still secluded, made emotionally and verbally inert by all the traumas she’s undergoing. Then the murders start…

Perfect Blue is one of the tragically few animated horror movies. Thankfully, it’s also an extraordinarily good one. Even though it’s Kon’s first feature film, it shows a director fully in control of his medium and his ideas. Every scene is bursting with subtext, whether it’s about the relationship between fans and celebrities or the media’s impact on female body image. Kon also demonstrates a talent, crucial to later films like Millennium Actress and Paprika, for mixing Mima’s subjective experience and loosening grasp on real life with the film’s literal reality. This nonstop ambiguity comes fully into play during the film’s big final revelation – one which took me by surprise, and upended my assumptions about all the preceding events. (I won’t give it away in writing, but if you’re really curious, an out-of-context visual spoiler is here.)

This is also a very creepy, very violent movie, combining Repulsion-style internal horror with extremely graphic slasher-style killings. But the killings are never gratuitous or contextless, as they feed into or build off of Mima’s own traumas. Her bloodthirsty stalker, like the rest of his obsessive ilk, feels that Mima owes him something for all his loyalty. When she insists on continuing her career the way she wants, he decides she’s a fake and has to die. It’s particularly telling that this decision follows Mima’s participation in a brutal televised rape scene – one that, according to her online doppelgänger, she didn’t want to make in the first place. Due to her association with a sexual act, she has been tainted and now she’s no longer the same Mima. The girlish illusion in a pink dress has been shattered.

This is one of the movie’s most eloquent, well-developed points: the male fans want ownership of their pop star’s sexuality. They have a picture of her in their minds and it must be maintained. (This is relevant across a wide spectrum of celebrities; think about all the singers and actresses whose personal lives have been distorted for publicity’s sake to mesh with their onscreen appearances.) And all the slut-shaming that Mima receives for doing the rape scene worsens her fears. As the movie goes on, the slender and fleet-footed vision of who she used to be, complete with pink ribbon and tutu, comes to dominate her life. In a great scene, the fake (or real?) Mima skips freely down a hallway, unburdened by gravity; meanwhile, the real (or fake?) Mima gasps for breath and struggles to keep up.

This is the issue that Perfect Blue dramatizes so ably in horror form: for her adoring public, the real Mima is a fake. She’s not demure, graceful, or pretty enough; she has her own opinions and desires. She has a weight and realness to her that prevent her from bouncing down a rainy street like her eternally smiling double. But this double, this duplicated image, is the only version of her that can satisfy the fans, and this fact obliterates her self-esteem, as well as her sanity. The process of being a celebrity, of forging the illusions that define music and TV, blur her very notions of who she is. If you’ve seen any of his other movies, you know: Satoshi Kon was the perfect director to take on those problems in Perfect Blue.

I’ll close with a fun illustration of Kon’s debt to American slasher movies. By chance, I happened to recognize a shot that had been quoted from the obscure, gory film The Toolbox Murders (1978). Directed by Dennis Donnelly, it stars Cameron Mitchell as a handyman who perpetrates of the titular murders. It’s a pretty ugly, misogynistic piece of work, with a suitably batshit ending, but at least Kon found it inspiration. Feast your eyes:

Coincidence?

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RIP Satoshi Kon, anime dream master

Last night I learned, tragically, that anime director Satoshi Kon has died of cancer at age 47. Kon was the creative force behind some of my favorite (non-Ghibli) feature-length anime films of recent years, specifically Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003, pictured above), and Paprika, a dream-hopping adventure I saw at MSPIFF when it premiered in 2006. He also directed the thriller Perfect Blue and the complex 13-episode series Paranoia Agent, both of which I have yet to see in their entirety. Suffice it to say that Kon’s life was cut short near the peak of his creative output, and there’s no telling how catastrophic a loss this is to the world of film.

I’ve been meaning to write about Kon for a while; I’m just sad that these have to be the circumstances in which I do it. I wrote a short piece on Millennium Actress a couple years ago; it’s none too insightful or well-written, but it’s a useful jumping-off point, so I’ll reprint it here:

One film whose existence was only made known to me recently is Millennium Actress (2001). From Satoshi Kon, director of great anime like the series Paranoia Agent and the film Paprika, it’s infused with his unique brand of surrealism, but put toward a more coherent purpose: deconstructing the life of a reclusive Japanese actress, as seen through the eyes of an admiring documentary filmmaker. The narrative intermingles her memories of 20th century Japan with images of her film career (including pastiches of Throne of Blood and Godzilla), and concerns her relationship with a political prisoner, who gives her the key “to the most important thing.” As it traces the actress’s struggle to find her lost love, it also examines the connection between real life and the dream lives portrayed in film, leading to a bittersweet finale. Between its multifarious animation styles and compelling subject matter, I find Millennium Actress just as beautiful as the much-praised works of Miyazaki.

This snippet hints at some of Kon’s inimitable strengths: he could blend an acute cultural awareness and a slightly wacky sense of humor with faith in the infinite (and phantasmagoric) capacities of animation. I’ve only seen Paranoia Agent‘s first episode, but even that lone half-hour displays Kon’s extensive talent for unpacking dense narratives with both impressive (sometimes disturbing) visuals and extreme, sometimes painful psychological detail. Although renowned for his forays into dream imagery (most explicitly Paprika), Kon always maintained an intense focus on those dreams’ emotional underpinnings and his characters’ rich internal lives. At the end of a summer so dominated by Inception, it’s refreshing to look at a dream-weaving director whose characters had personalities and a pulse.

Tokyo Godfathers, which I watched a few weeks ago, was a delightful surprise and demonstrated Kon’s sheer versatility. Although much of his work consists of probing, stylized peeks into the psyches of fragile individuals, Godfathers proved that he was equally adept at marrying urban drama with broad comedy. In American films, homelessness is too often the substance of saccharine, Oscar-baity melodramas; Kon, however, sympathetically observes his poverty-ridden (but still dignified) characters – a grizzled, middle-aged man, a flamboyant trans woman, and a teenage runaway – as they form a strange but functional family unit, interacting naturalistically and coping with hardships that range from hunger to tuberculosis to their dirty, hidden pasts.

Kon deftly balances the gravity of their collective situation with the lightness of their madcap chases and slapstick collisions (as when an assassin accidentally prevents one of them from making a potentially fatal mistake). And although the film indulges in a number of anime clichés, they never threaten to constrain it, since it’s always buoyed by its fundamental soulfulness and self-awareness. Tokyo Godfathers is volatile in mood and style, but Kon handles these rapid transitions masterfully. It’s a film that’s integrates cartoonish extravagances with Tokyo’s physical realities, and a must-see for any fan of Kon’s other films.

However, I think Millennium Actress is Kon’s best work, and possibly one of the best animated films from any nation. It’s so alive with the power and history of cinema; how could I not love it? (For Ozu lovers, its title character is also loosely based on the enigmatic Setsuko Hara.) I’m sure Kon’s critical legacy will be hotly debated over the coming years – and as we debate it, we’ll be mourning the future films he could have made. He did leave an unfinished film, The Dream Machines, at his death; perhaps it’ll be visible someday. In the meantime, here are a couple of helpful Kon-centric links: 1) an extensive interview with Kon from around the time Paprika was released and 2) Film Studies For Free‘s round-up of resources and academic papers on Kon. Or else you can hit YouTube and start watching Paranoia Agent.

Addendum: While glancing through this retrospective on Kon’s career, I saw a description of Tokyo Godfathers as “saccharine melodrama.” Clearly I disagree (I think Godfathers is pretty underrated); still, the piece by Grady Hendrix of the New York Sun has a lot of great insights and is very worth reading.

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